Remember to Laugh, Otherwise it’s Ashes to Ashes

David Bowie - Ashes to AshesI am amazed by the insights my children often share with me. One afternoon, as we drove to a local nature reserve tucked in among a city suburb, my son Owen observed of the scattered mansions dotting the road we traveled “Why do people need such big houses? It’s such a waste of natural habitat.” I had never coached him in the environmentalist’s creed, largely because I am a carbon-sucking sloth like everyone else in North America. We were driving in my compact SUV to the nature reserve, after all. The observation was his alone, which made me proud.

Another time, he had a fascination with supernovas, piqued by the Ray LaMontagne song by that name. He seemed awed by the idea such energies exist in the universe, that there was nothing we could do to influence them in any way. For weeks he would ask me about the prospects of a supernova jeopardizing earth’s existence. I said “nah,” without having a clue. He consulted Wikipedia on the subject, and learned there is geological evidence of gamma rays from supernovas, a belief the effects on the ozone layer may have caused massive extinctions of oceanic life. No matter the risks to earth, a supernova definitely obliterated my son’s faith in his learned father as a source of edification, which was all that mattered to me. I hate supernovas now.

These are just a couple of examples that scream to me in the starkest terms possible that my child is no longer really a child; that he’s reflecting deeply about things in his experience. It’s a harrowing prospect if he’s anywhere near as skeptical, self-critical, and emotionally mistrusting as I was at his age. Innocently, out of the blue the other day, he said “I notice I don’t laugh uncontrollably at certain funny things like I used to when I was a kid. Why is that?”

My first thought was ‘I think that makes me want to curl up and die, son.’ It is disheartening to realize he’s lost some of his childhood bliss, but it’s to be expected, to a degree. My second thought was I should say something like “It’s sad you’re thinking this way, but don’t worry, the sun will come out tomorrow.” I refrained, but it was not easy. I just said “Maybe you’re applying a little more opinion than feeling to certain things as you grow older. I don’t know. What do you think?”

Owen just turned thirteen. Sometimes he wanders into the living room without me noticing, curious about the not kid-friendly movie he’s overhearing from his bedroom. I continue to forget – or am still in denial – about the fact my kids aren’t nine; that, at ten o’clock they probably aren’t fast asleep dreaming of dancing in lollipop fields. Inevitably, a scene with nudity or violence propels him to reveal his presence “I guess I shouldn’t be watching this, hey Dad?”

After a few instances of this, it strikes me that he is genuinely interested in these movies. It’s not just the sensation of flesh and gore that piques his imagination, it’s the existence of social dynamics so utterly foreign to him that fascinates. He’s curious; the situations are so much more emotionally nuanced, the characters not so one-dimensional in their psychological métier, unlike the cardboard cut-out characters he’s been exposed to in kids’ movies. There are no clear good guys and bad guys; there are good people doing bad things and vice versa. There is no easy fix, no clearly self-interested aims to see through. The world is not flat, and its problems are bigger than who will become king.

Supernova. Obliterated my son's faith in his father's as a learned figure in his life.

Supernova. Obliterated my son’s faith in his father as a learned figure in his life.

I can see his mind swirling with questions about what he sees in the movies I’m watching, or what he sees and hears on the news of the world. People are dying all over the place. Bombs are going off with intent to kill and maim. There is rampant, abject poverty and crass wealth. The polar ice-cap is shrinking every year. Things aren’t turning out peachy in the world, at least not for most of us. These create conflicts in a young mind cradled in simple, easy-to-digest fictions, who is possessed of a body reeling with hormones and exploding from clothes he fit just yesterday. It’s all a bit unsettling.

It’s unfortunate he’s no longer laughing with the same uninhibited abandon he once did, and I wonder if there’s a sadness or trepidation at what he is learning about the world that is partly responsible. I will never forget the sheer force of that laugh several years ago; a laugh which energized a theatre of movie-goers as we watched Kung Fu Panda. By the end of the movie I could feel the entire audience watching Owen watch the movie. His amusement at what was unfolding on screen was infectious and intensified others’ delight in the experience.

Since then, I assume it’s been an increasing sense of ‘been there, done that.’ Things may be funny, but they’re not that funny. As we watch movie after movie specifically made for kids his age, he displays a growing weariness about the lack of imagination, depth, and substance in the characters and situations that typify these stories. I wonder if he detects how little they challenge convention. He has been saying repeatedly for about a year now, ‘filled with clichés,’ which suggests he does. He prefers to watch the enormous selection of nature documentaries available on Netflix, which suits me fine. At least there are no questions about gratuitous drugs, sex, or violence I have to dance around, and I get to make fun of David Attenborough’s aristocratic British accent.

It’s clear my son is really beginning to filter his experience via his emerging sense of judgement. For most teenagers there are two crude dimensions of this faculty: “Suck” and “Does not suck.” In my son’s case, I worry he will inherit a yardstick with the taint of my own skeptical, idealist bent; one that is quick to detect, denounce, and despair of the cruelty, duplicity, and corruption that defile humanity. Thus far, he’s only gone so far as casting aspersions at the preponderance of clichés we seem to live by, but it’s a slippery slope.

I’ve tried to raise my son without over-indulging him with my opinions about everything under the sun to spare him the perils of my own cynicism. I was raised that way by well-meaning, ideologically zealous family members. The approach robs a child of trust in their own instincts and renders them emotionally rudderless. Despite my struggle to exercise ideological forbearance in his life, my son sees certain things critically in his own right. I swear, there have only been a few minor slips from his father’s stadium-sized, navel-gazing peanut gallery, hardly enough to have prod him unwillingly along that path. At least that is my hope.

I am glad my son is intellectually curious and takes the time to follow up on the big questions in a conscientious way. It’s encouraging to see him chasing after his own sophisticated view of things. I respect his brains and ideas about the world he sees, and am relieved he isn’t applying the “Sucks/Does not suck” dichotomy to that world. That will be his salvation from the neurosis that began to imprison me at his age.

Most of all, I am relieved he expends the energy to frame his world without relying on others to do it for him. The habit of looking outward turns a potentially infinite mind into an intellectually lazy, ignorant, dull mind; one that merely parrots whatever has been served for mass consumption. It also cultivates a strong affinity for axioms that appease fear and anxiety, no matter how false they may be, which as a consequence blunts the mind’s capacity to perceive wisdom.

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

John Cleese, aka Minister of Silly Walks

The habit of looking beyond ourselves for truth is tragic, because it severs the connection with our inner source of freedom and intensifies feelings of powerlessness. It is ironic the vast freedom to pursue and transmit knowledge in our societies has failed to free our minds from the sway of cultural media extolling idealizations of reality that are compelling less by their moral force than by the intensity of their appeal to our crudest emotions. I am glad my son already shows signs of seeing through such demagoguery; that he is inclined to reflect inward and explore sources of wisdom outside the traditional cultural bellwethers.

The day after my son asked me that question I was sitting in my living room when David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes” came on the radio. I remember vividly when I first heard it in the summer of 1981. My best friend’s older brother, who had exquisite taste in music, filled their home with the elegiac yearning of that song. I was instantly overwhelmed with wonder in the experience; that something so simple as a song could be so strange and wonderful at the same time; that it could penetrate my bones with its true meaning, if not in a way that I could understand intellectually.

I fought back tears as the song ended. It reaffirmed my adoration for Bowie, who so transcendently encapsulates the indescribable repercussions of loss; lost childhood, or lost youth, at least. To me, the song is wistful about how our spirit smoulders under the emotional weight of adult lives too often tilled from the ashes of forsaken youth. The drugs and excess of so many successful people are a failed attempt to prop up perpetually wilting egos heavy from the artifice. It seems to me the better solution would be to exhume the child buried beneath the ashes. The notion gave me pause; I think of children my son’s age crafting their identities, one judgement at a time, stoking the flames that engulf their true essence to fit the cultural mold of adulthood.

What dies in the process is the wonder that keeps the spirit yearning for more of the simple graces this life has to offer – that fuels the curiosity and energy to see it fulfilled in authentic ways. The richness of life can’t be experienced fully by those entangled in the spiritless life of most adults. It is essential to leave the confines of that existence to cultivate a connection to the feeling in our bodies telling us what the world reveals in our experience, and to trust the wisdom arising from that.

Uncontrollable laughter is as all-consuming within our bodies as crippling sadness. The truth in those experiences is undeniable, despite the qualification our minds impart to temper our psyches. I want to say to my son ‘If something’s really not funny don’t laugh; if it is, do so fully. Let go to how it feels in your heart, not your mind.’ Trust is maintained in that purity of feeling by holding up the mirror to ourselves daily, with spiritual intention, to ensure what is reflected remains the person we knew intimately as children; that the view isn’t dulled by the ashes and dust of abandonment to adulthood.

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